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Epsom considering former school for office space

EPSOM - A now vacant lot that once housed a Montessori school in Epsom may find a second life as the town's office space, as the Board of Selectmen considers the possibility of holding a special town meeting to purchase the property.

For about three years now, the town has leased its office space from a strip mall at the Epsom traffic circle. Under the 10-year lease, the town currently pays about $33,000 a year, and that figure is soon expected to grow to $40,000.

The lease also has a five- year escape clause, however, with a caveat that the town must move to a town-owned space larger than or of equal size to the current offices. With that time frame only about two years off, the town has been doubling its efforts to find a new solution.

"The consensus in the town is we don't like paying rent forever, because you're paying big money and you own nothing at the end of it," said Donald Harty, selectmen chair.

Various town office study committees have been formed over the years, with Epsom's Old Town Meeting House often having been raised as a contender. With limited size and an unknown scope of work required to bring the building up and running, however, voters weren't thoroughly sold on the prospect, most recently voting down a $25,000 warrant in March to continue work on the site.

It was during the discussions on that warrant that the idea of Pathfinder Academy was forwarded. Pathfinder Academy was a Montessori school founded in 2001 by libertarian Wayne Anderson and his wife, Julie. Faced with plummeting enrollments, however, the school shut its doors in 2012, and the property went up for auction in January of 2013.

With no third party bidders meeting the asking price, Bank of New Hampshire ultimately had to purchase the property back.

The property, described as "mixed use" by the Paul McInnis auction notice, is located at 59 Sawyer Ave. in Epsom and is "visible from the traffic circle."

The 3.5 acre complex includes four buildings which total more than 9,000 square feet: a main house, two classroom buildings, and an outbuilding with two drive-in doors used as a garage and workshop. According to the auction notice, the property is zoned for residential and commercial use.

The bank is currently asking $285,000 for the property, which is assessed at close to $900,000.

After contacting the property's realtor and submitting a letter of interest, the board took a tour of the property at a special selectman's meeting, with 20 or 30 residents attending. Another special meeting/tour will be held on Monday, April 22 at 5 p.m.

After that meeting, the Board of Selectmen will hold a regular meeting at which they will discuss whether they feel strongly enough about the purchase to bring it before voters.

Should they decide to move ahead, a special town meeting will be required to approve the move, as waiting for the regularly scheduled meeting in March of 2014 runs the risk of having the property sold off before the town can act.

"The decision, if we go with it, is not going to be made by the selectmen," said Harty. "It's going to be made by the voters in town. The board as a whole is very adamant that we want to be above board with as much public input as possible. We don't want anybody thinking that we're trying to do this under the cover of darkness with nobody looking."

The timeline of the meeting is still in the works, but current estimates put the vote, should it occur, sometime between the end of June and early July. The cost associated with the meeting is also unclear, but a "ballpark" guess of $3,000 has been given.

Supporters on the board, such as Harty, believe that the property will find more favor with voters than the old meeting house for its size, its cost compared to value, and the options it will give the town in the future.

"The old meeting house is a big unknown in terms of what it's going to cost and get it up and usable ... and it's about 40 percent less space than we currently have," said Harty. "We could shoehorn the current staff into that space, but it allows for zero growth.

"Pathfinder Academy, on the other hand, has everything we need for probably 50 years running," he continued.

The property also features a brand new, one-stall garage, which has been discussed as potentially housing the town's highway department.

"It's a very poor situation (for the highway department currently), and I see this as an opportunity down the road sometime to at least move some of the equipment from the highway department into that garage where they can actually wash the vehicles and keep maintenance costs down," said Harty.

Harty also spoke to the possibility of leasing out unused buildings to businesses to offset the costs of maintaining the site.

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